If we simply must keep getting the same movies over and over and over again — and that is not a concession that this status quo is unchangeable — they need to be at least as good as Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation. Though perhaps with less convoluted punctuation in their titles.
Have we see this all before? Yes… and no. Spy action thrillers should be a dime a dozen instead of $21/£18 a pop in IMAX, but ubiquitous they certainly are. Globetrotting gunplay by agents with cool gadgets and a particular set of skills are utterly unable to keep a low profile onscreen. But this franchise, at least with its two most recent installments (counting this one), hasn’t been taking its audience for granted. It works for your appreciation, which is more than can be said for many similar films in the genre. Rogue Nation may feel the lack of Brad Bird, who does not return as director: the movie is missing Bird’s uniquely human-scaled — and even humane — approach to the action that made Ghost Protocol so astonishingly fresh. But new boy Christopher McQuarrie more than makes up for that with gasp-inducing action sequences that will have you holding your breath in sympathy with those getting pummeled: the opening sequence, in which Tom Cruise’s IMF agent Ethan Hunt jumps onto the wing of an taxiing cargo plane and clings to its side as the enormous thing takes off beautifully ups the ante on Protocol’s hanging-off-the-side-of-a-skyscraper stunt. And almost everything you will see here actionwise is like nothing you’ve ever seen before, even when it kinda is: precariously choreographed fisticuffs high in the backstage rigging of the Vienna opera house (while an opera is being performed below, natch) are gripping; a car+multiple-motorcycle chase does things to vehicles that they shouldn’t be able to do; and I’m pretty sure that split-second computer shenanigans and underwater antics have never been combined like this before.
McQuarrie — who previously collaborated with Cruise as director with Jack Reacher and as screenwriter with Edge of Tomorrow — also wrote the script, and finally moves the M:I franchise away from its Cold War roots and into the far more geopolitically complex 21st century. (The series has finally caught up to James Bond in that regard.) After the events of Protocol — which, you may recall, saw the Kremlin reduced to rubble — the “Impossible Mission Force” is in even bigger trouble than it was before, and CIA Director Alan Hunley (Alec Baldwin: Still Alice, Rise of the Guardians) oversees the political shutdown of the IMF as an unnecessary and out of control “throwback.” The entire agency has been disavowed, and for good, it would seem, but Hunt is on the track of a way-underground terrorist entity known only as “the Syndicate” and won’t let go, not even when Hunley orders Hunt’s former colleagues William Brandt (Jeremy Renner: Avengers: Age of Ultron, Kill the Messenger), Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg: Man Up, The Boxtrolls), and Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames: Piranha 3DD, The Goods: Live Hard, Sell Hard) to hunt him down and bring him in.
From the first, Nation is both having fun with its legacy and moving it in a new direction: the secret message from HQ that will self-destruct and the 3D-printed human-skin face masks come in for clever re-thinks of a sort here. And what the Syndicate seems to be about reflects the confusions and complexities of how the world is working, and how it is falling apart, in the 2010s: Hunt insists that seemingly disparate events — World Bank crises; missing passenger jetliners; military coups in banana republics — are all the doing of the Syndicate. Has he stumbled onto something deeply nefarious in an organization that may or may not have ties to just about every intelligence agency on the planet? (Problems with this new transnational, interagency geopolitical approach: Whenever sometime said “IMF,” I kept translating as “International Monetary Fund,” not “Impossible Mission Force.” And I kept expecting someone to out Renner as a Treadstone agent.) Or is Hunt just another conspiracy theorist?
Well, there’s not a lot of suspense in that question: Hunt is Our Hero, so of course he’s not delusional. But matters of just whom we should trust — among our friends, among our colleagues, among our leaders — bubble under everything here. Just what does it mean to go rogue today when even those in charge don’t appear terribly noble or trustworthy? Who is the mysterious woman, Ilsa Frost (Rebecca Ferguson: Hercules) — who appears to be working with Syndicate mastermind Solomon Lane (Sean Harris: Serena, Deliver Us from Evil) but may also be on Hunt’s side, or at least on a side somewhat aligned with Hunt’s — and can she be trusted? When global geopolitics really does look more like actual, open conspiracy than anything theoretical, is there even a “right” side to be on?
Still, Rogue Nation — even the title is open to interpretation, and none of flattering to anyone — doesn’t delve too deeply into the thinky stuff. As with the action, it’s just different enough to feel provocative without threatening to make you actually uncomfortable with it. Which may well be the best approach for a bit of escapist summer fun.